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May 22, 2015

To be or not to be: sports role models

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By Lesley Parker for UTS Business School

The pressure on elite athletes to never slip up, on or off the field, is an inevitable – but in some ways regrettable – aspect of commercialisation, a breakfast seminar on role models in sport, hosted by UTS Business School, has heard.

Australian cricketer Alyssa Healy, gold medal winning diver Matt Mitcham and Waratahs Rugby chief executive Greg Harris spoke of the impact of living in the spotlight, at the second in a series of UTS Sport Breakfast Panel events.

From Left - moderator Tracey Holmes & panellists Alyssa Healy, Greg Harris and Matthew Mitcham address the breakfast seminar. Image credit: Kevin Cheung

From Left – moderator Tracey Holmes & panellists Alyssa Healy, Greg Harris and Matthew Mitcham address the breakfast seminar. Image credit: Kevin Cheung

“Whatever you do is going to be exposed these days, with social media and so on,” Harris said. “A long time ago, when I was still a player, I’m sure a lot of things occurred that if they happened now would be reported in the media. That’s society today.”

On top of that, today’s professional players had to understand that the sponsors and business partners associated with their sports were, indirectly, paying their wages and certain expectations came with that.

Associate Professor Paul Jonson introduced the discussion by outlining research he has conducted with fellow UTS Business School academic Associate Professor Daryl Adair, along with Professor Sandra Lynch of the University of Notre Dame Australia. Jonson, Adair and Lynch are specialists in sport law, management and ethics respectively.

“We were interested in the way in which elite or professional athletes are required to be role models outside their sport,” Prof Jonson said. “While they are on the field there are clear rules and regulations. But we were interested in the way athletes were effectively being required to be moral exemplars 24/7, to be the best citizens of all, in everything they do, at all times. No other profession is so accountable.”

Healy, who is in the Elite Athlete Program at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), and Mitcham said there was little choice but to be role models, though this was something they accepted.

“As soon as anybody looks up to you, you automatically become a role model,” Mitcham said. “You can choose to accept that and embrace that, and model your behaviour off that and be a good role model. Or you can choose to not let it affect how you behave and potentially be a bad role model.

“I was so starved of role models as a teenager that I felt like I had a great opportunity to be a good role model,” he said.

‘Where does being an athlete start and finish? Is there any time when an athlete can be a person with their own morals and values and ideas?’

Healy said: “Looking up at other athletes, I saw them as role models and I knew if I was to go down that path I would have to be a role model too.”

But where does being an athlete start and finish? moderator Tracey Holmes – award-winning journalist and a UTS PhD student – asked the panel. “Is there any time when an athlete can be a person with their own morals and values and ideas that don’t have to be put aside?”

She gave the example of former Wallabies captain David Pocock, who received a written warning from the Australian Rugby Union after being arrested at a protest against a mining development. Holmes said the ARU told Pocock his priority should be his role as a high-performance athlete.

“David wasn’t the first player to take a political stand,” Harris noted. “People refused to play rugby during the Springbok tour [in 1971] … The difference these days is the commercialisation of sport and the expectations of others.

“When you are paying [a player], that money comes indirectly from sponsors, from the partners in your business, and they have different expectations … It was a lot easier back then, when there wasn’t a lot of money involved.”

Healy said that, as a frequent social media user, she knows that an opinion she might voice in a tweet can be taken 1000 different ways. “Sometimes you’re not able to voice an opinion you have because a small part of society may have an issue with that.”

Asked whether administrators should be allowed to tell athletes what they’re allowed to comment on, she said: “In my personal opinion, [the answer is] a big ‘no’,” partly because it makes it harder these days to have “personalities” in sport.

From a pragmatic perspective, Mitcham noted that creating a media stir could take attention away from others’ performances, hence the restrictions on Olympic athletes. “I understand that, in a way,” he said. However, he greatly admired Pocock for always standing up for what he believed in.


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